Syrian President Bashar Assad has threatened to ignite a firestorm in the Middle East by promising an immediate attack on Israel if NATO takes military action against his beleaguered government. According to Iran’s Fars news agency, Assad told Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at a meeting on Tuesday, October 4, “I won’t need more than six hours to transfer hundreds of rockets to Golan to fire at Tel Aviv”.
He went on to say that the attacks will not be limited to Israel. “All these events will happen in three hours, and in the following three hours, Iran will attack the US warships in the Persian Gulf and the US and European interests will be targeted simultaneously,” Assad said, according to FARS.
He was not exaggerating; what he threatened may well be possible. The rockets (and missiles) are there, provided to Syria and Hezbollah by Iran over the past five years. Some are already in position.
His words must have fallen on welcoming ears, even though Turkey is now taking a hard line against its neighbor. Under the direct leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has been rattling sabers throughout the region, raising the specter of war that will go beyond the narrow confines of national borders. In recent weeks, Turkey has begun a campaign of harassment against Israel’s merchant marine in the Mediterranean, threatening Cyprus’ off-shore gas exploration site, promising to protect a planned blockade-busting flotilla against Israel with it navy, and, yesterday, imposing undetermined sanctions on Syria’s Assad government.
A third player in the growing list of antagonists is Iran, which has supported Assad throughout the latest unrest. Syria has been a client state of Iran for many years, because of its strategic importance as both a land-bridge to Lebanon and a seaport on the Mediterranean. Now less sure of the outcome in Syria, as demonstrations continues and world opinion lines up against the Assad government, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has hedged his bets by strengthening Iran’s position in the Persian Gulf, and by sending at least two of its ships into the Red Sea. The Red Sea is a long, narrow dead-end channel which is bordered by Egypt, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, and ends at Israel’s southern port, Eilat. Iran’s presence there is highly inflammatory.
Lebanon is the step-child in the growing Middle East environment of revolt and retaliation. Its role has been largely overshadowed by the rolling revolutions of the past year.
Lebanon has been largely taken over by Hezbollah, surrogate of Iran’s terror-supporting power network, and it may actually provide the spark that ends up igniting a much larger conflict. The recipient of massive transports of heavy weapons, rockets, sophisticated missiles, and personnel (thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops) from its patron, Iran, Lebanon is positioned to spearhead a major attack on its neighbor to the south – Israel.
The threat that Hezbollah poses to the region, however, goes further, not only targeting Israel, but impacting the entire Middle East and beyond. Hezbollah possesses tens of thousands of Iranian-supplied rockets and missiles. Its vast network of underground tunnels, used to transport troops and weapons invisibly, and the presence of thousands of IRGC troops to support Hezbollah soldiers, represent a major threat, not only to Israel, but to the larger world arena.
The complexities of the increasingly violent and wide reaching ‘Arab Spring’ are compounded by the apparent power struggle playing out on the Middle Eastern stage between Turkey’s Edgogan and Iran’s Ahmadinejad. This power struggle is not likely to be contained in the region, nor limited to Middle Eastern countries. The two men are both devout Muslims devoted to a violent jihad and share the dream of creating pan-Muslim community leading to a global Caliphate, although they no doubt differ in their views of who should be administering it.
The irresponsible words and actions of these three leaders can only be interpreted as threats of violence that must be taken seriously. Whatever their individual game plans, if their words are followed by actions that are interpreted as acts of war, then the result will be a major conflagration that will spread quickly.
An attack on Israel from Iran-backed Syria and/or Hezbollah will be met with a ferocity not yet seen in the region, and will not end in a single, cross-border conflict, as we have seen before. The interference of Iran, Turkey, and Western states compelled to become involved will become the most desperate of any war we have faced yet.
If our foreign policy continues down the road of interfering without leading, of creating chaos where there was previously order, it does not bode well for our own future. Now is the time for strong and insightful leadership from Washington to defuse the situation as quickly as possible, and move us back into a time where international options are decided around a negotiating table, not on the battlefield.